the First Sunday after Christmas
26 December 2019
Today’s readings are:
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Click here to access these readings.
Back when I was interviewing for the job as your priest, someone on the BAC (I think it was Pete, maybe John) asked me, “Do you prefer to be called ‘father’ or ‘reverend’?” This is something that people talked about at seminary quite a bit. Everyone had a preference, and everyone had a different reason why. Jesus said not to call anyone ‘father’ but your Father in Heaven, but ‘reverend’ comes from ‘reverence’, and none of us for sure didn’t want anyone to reverence us.
The women in seminary had an even more difficult choice: few of them wanted to be called ‘mother’, but not all of them liked ‘reverend.’ Some of them decided not to have a title at all and to just go with their first names, while others wanted to root themselves in tradition. One woman I knew, who graduated a year after me, asks people to call her “Father Jane.” Everyone’s different.
And so when Pete or John asked me this question, with all the BAC around, I had these discussions running around my head. I personally prefer ‘father’ because of it’s traditional, but I knew there were folks out there who would balk at the title. And so I did what I usually did as a teacher when a student asked me a difficult question: I reflected. “What do you want to call me?” I asked. I was eventually pressed into making a choice, but I used the question, as I’ll use it now, as a teaching moment. It’s very nice to know what I want to be called, and very important, I think, but I think it’s also important to know what you want to call me. It tells me what you see a priest as and what you need in a priest.
What you call someone says a lot about what you need and who you are. I remember, once, a student emailed me to tell me that he was dropping my class. Normally, students would address me as ‘Tim’ or ‘Mr. Hannon’, and if they were asking for a favor, they’d even try ‘Dr. Hannon’, even though I told them I didn’t have a PhD. But this student, thinking, perhaps, that he was dropping the class, so why bother, addressed me as “Tim-o”. And the email that he wrote, and the reasons he gave for dropping my class, continued this rather relaxed, up-front, and disrespectful air. Helene and I, on the other hand, try our best to have Gwendolyn address you all with ‘mister’ or ‘misses’ in front of your names, not only because we want her to show you respect, but because using these titles helps Gwendolyn respect other people (at least we hope
Now, St. Paul does something very interesting with titles in our letter to the Galatians. But before we get to the Bible, I want to ask you all a question: how do you address God? Now this might change depending on how you’re praying. At least that’s how I work. If I need something, or if I want something (which are pretty different, even though we sometimes forget that they are), I make sure I’m very polite. “Oh, dear God, loving and giving Lord, God who does wonders and loves those who are in trouble, please hear my prayer.” I lay it on thick, for sometimes I forget that God isn’t like us humans who, now and again, need a bit of buttering up. And if it’s thanksgivings, I’m usually a bit shorter. “Thanks God” or “Thank you Jesus.” The more I need, the more long-winded I get, and this says more about me than about God. I wonder if you’re similar.
But jokes aside, how do you address God? Or, in your heart of hearts, how do you think of God? Who is God to you? Is God someone you feel you have to placate, who you have to persuade, you need to cajole, or maybe even someone you have to bribe? If you only do this for me, God, I’ll make sure to pray every day, or donate more to church, or something similar? Is God someone you have to address like a lawyer addressing a court, choosing your words carefully and making sure that you ask exactly what you want, lest God misunderstand you or trick you and give you something you really don’t want or that you just can’t handle?
In the light of day, on a nice morning here in church, maybe not, but when things get dark, many of us feel that God is a lot like a lawyer or a judge or, even, a jailer. We can say that God is a god of love, but in the back of our heads we often wonder if that love is a hard love. When we pray, and those prayers aren’t answered, we can wonder that, maybe, we prayed wrong, or that we’re not good enough for that prayer to be answered, or that because of our sin God is mad at us and won’t listen, even if we pray from the depths of our hearts. And if you have never felt this way, then you are blessed; but know that there are many who we serve who do experience God this way. They feel beaten up by a god who seems to care more about perfection than grace.
And this is why it is so amazing that the way St. Paul talks about addressing God is to use the word “Abba.” Now, ‘abba’ means something a bit more familiar than “Father” but also a bit more formal than “Daddy”; something like “Dad”, but more like “my dad” or “my father.” And Paul writes this not only because he wants his readers, and you yourself, to understand something very important about God, but because he wants you to know something very important about you yourself and yourselves. You are children of God. You’re not slaves, not servants, not defendants in a court or anything like that, but children. You are beloved children.
Now, this doesn’t mean that God will be a doting parent, or that, because you’re children of God, God’ll overlook things like you wreaking his car or something. As C.S. Lewis wrote, God isn’t a tired old grandfather who just likes to sit back and watching kids have fun, or who will buy his grandkids candy behind their parents back. No, God is a father, a parent, and so there are some chores to do, and when we do wrong we need to seek reconciliation.
When we say that we are children of God, we mean that we share the same relationship with God that the Son has, that Jesus had and has even now. And while that relationship didn’t mean that Jesus would have an easy life, it did mean that there would be a light that is instilled in us that is as deep as Creation. That Life that Jesus had while healing, while preaching, while teaching, while going around all throughout the land and being with the people; and that Life that, even when it was crucified, could raise again; and that Life that was so mighty and so beautiful and so True that it pulled up each and every one of us towards heaven with it, and not just you and me but the whole of Creation; that Life lives within us now. That Hope, that Life, that eternal Life that Jesus had and has, that is something for us all, not as something given into our hands like a present on Christmas but something born inside of us, a relationship of love that can outlast the stars themselves.
And now I will ask you the same question I asked Tuesday night because I really want you to think about it: what will you do with this Life? You have been given a gift, and you are now a Child of God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. You have a life within you that has defied empires and that has calmed the mightiest storms of doubt and grief. You have the same heart that St. Francis did when he preached to the birds, and you have the same heart that St. Thomas had when he gave his life to study. And you have the same heart that has caused countless generations of Christians to live good, honest, quiet lives of love, of hope, and of grace. You have that life, for Jesus Christ has been born within your heart this Christmas, and at your baptism, and every time you join in the Eucharist, and every single time you turn, again, from sin and hatred to the loving light of God. How will you live, knowing that you are a Son or Daughter of God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?